Physicalism: A False View of the World

Peter Meyer
Reality Sandwich

Physicalism is the philosophical claim that only what is physical is real, where physical means: To be found or inferred by measurement and reason as existing in the world observable by the outer senses (mainly sight, hearing and touch). Physicalism is distinct from physics. Physics is (a) an activity based upon observing the world (by means of the outer senses), theorizing, experimenting and testing and (b) a body of knowledge which consists of truths established by this activity. This essay does not deny the truth of any established proposition of physics. Physicalism, on the other hand, is the ontological position which asserts that only that which is the subject of physics can be held to be real, or in other words, that reality consist only of what can be observed by means of the outer senses or can be shown to exist by the investigations of physicists. If physical reality does not comprise the whole of what is real then it is possible to accept the truths of physics while asserting the falsity of physicalism.

There is no generally accepted accurate ism-word to describe the dominant, modern, secular (non-religious) view of the world. “Materialism” comes close but “matter” as understood in modern physics is far less “material” than was previously thought. Materialism in the strict sense is the view that only what is material is real, where material means: composed of matter. But what is matter? Even if we equate matter with the totality of all the atoms and subatomic particles existing in the universe this still leaves electromagnetic radiation (x-rays, gamma rays, light, etc.), which has observable effects, and thus is real but is not material. Thus it is clear that materialism in the strict sense is false. When mention is made of the “materialist” view prevalent in the modern world what is being referred to is the physicalist view as defined in the preceding paragraph. But most people are unaware of the distinction between material and non-material physical reality, and for such people there is no difference between physicalism and materialism. For them the only reality is what they can see and touch (with hearing and smell indicating the presence of something to be seen or touched), and if they think further about this they generally accept (if they are notbelievers in some religious view of the world) what they are told by the scientific establishment: that there is no reality other than atoms (and subatomic particles) and radiation.

  • A major objection to physicalism is that it cannot explain the existence of consciousness. Since consciousness indisputably exists (as shown by the fact that you are now conscious of reading this) physicalists can only assert that somehow consciousness “emerges” in “sufficiently complex” physical systems from the atoms, subatomic particles and electromagnetic radiation which is all that a physicalist allows to be real. In the words of Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), “Human thoughts and emotions emerge from exceedingly complex interconnections of physical entities within the brain.” (Italics in the original.) Physicalists thus label consciousness as an “emergent property” of complex physical systems (they have to italicize “emergent” so as to slip this past one’s critical faculties). But to label it in this way is not to explain how this “emergence” could possibly occur.

    Physicalists can talk as much as they like about neural structures, resonant patterns of brain activity and the like, but in fact they haveno explanation for the “emergence” of consciousness from “complex interconnections of physical entities within the brain.” This is actually an article of faith, comparable to Christians’ faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. A Christian who understands their faith says, “I have chosen to believe in Jesus resurrected from the dead.” A physicalist also chooses to believe, that consciousness “emerges” from complex networks of neurons, but is usually not aware that they have chosen to believe.

    Attempts by physicalists to explain consciousness are actually attempts to explain it away. “Consciousness explained” by a physicalist is really “consciousness denied”. Physicalists must accept the dilemma that either consciousness does not “really” exist or that the existence of consciousness is inexplicable. Neither horn of the dilemma is satisfactory.

    If, however, consciousness is a fundamental and irreducible quality of reality (so that a form of consciousness goes all the way down, even to molecules and atoms) then the existence of conscious beings such as ourselves is not a total mystery. But if a physicalist allows the possibility that physical reality is inherently conscious (which idea most physicalists would reject) then the way is open to the idea that there is some reality beyond physical reality (that is, beyond the existence of atoms, subatomic particles and electromagnetic radiation), and to move in this direction is to abandon physicalism.

    No-one who follows a religion in their idea of how the world is is a physicalist. Religious people always believe in something which is not part of physical reality, often a “supreme being” which they call “God”, “Allah”, “Ishvara”, etc. But it does not follow that someone who has a view of the world other than physicalism must have a religious view of the world. The falsity of physicalism does not imply the truth of any religious doctrine. It is entirely possible to deny physicalism without being in any sense religious.

    The antithesis of physicalism (the view that physicalism is false) might be called spiritualism, but unfortunately this term is often used to refer to the 19th C. fascination with “spirits”, in particular, with the invocation of them in seances. So we shall have to use the term “spiritual view of the world”, or “spiritual view” for short.

    The spiritual view is that there is a reality (or there are realities) which can be experienced and known which is (or are) not within the world observable by the outer senses. This view does not in itself state what exists within spiritual reality, and thus it does not entail the existence of “God” or of gods. What exists in spiritual reality is something to be discovered by experience, and which can be so discovered.

    Science is not incompatible with the spiritual view if by science is understood a quest for knowledge of what is real. If there is a non-physical reality then a true scientist will wish to know about it. Modern natural scientists often assume that physicalism is true, and thereby exclude the possibility of knowledge of a spiritual reality. Such natural scientists are thus not true scientists. A natural scientist may state that only physical reality is of interest to him, but he is not justified in claiming that science can properly concern itself only with physical reality.

    In order to show that physicalism is false we need only show that we may experience and know something which is not found or inferred by measurement and reason as existing in the world observable by the outer senses. This must be something which can be experienced and known by many people. It is not enough for someone to say, “I know God exists because He speaks to me.” Such experience may be convincing to the person who has the experience but it does not prove that “God” exists.

    There is no largest prime number; this has been known since the time of Euclid (who provided a proof). We know this to be true, but prime numbers do not exist in the physical world, therefore physicalism is false. If it be objected that there are many instances of three apples, five oranges, etc., it can be replied that there is a finite number of objects within physical reality and, whatever this number is, there is a larger prime number. I am not suggesting that prime numbers exist in some kind of Platonic heaven. I do suggest, however, that the mental ability of humans to conceive of prime numbers (and of infinite-dimensional Hilbert spaces and the like) cannot be explained by Darwinian natural selection, and is evidence that a higher intelligence is expressed in humans (or at least, in some of them).

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